Salsa, Latin, soul, house and jazz: Nuyorican Soul.
Daryl Easlea 2011
The brainchild of Masters at Work, Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez and ‘Little’ Louie Vega, Nuyorican Soul was an outlet for the house producers’ jazzier, old-school tendencies. Picked up Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud imprint, the album created an enormous impact across UK radios and clubs throughout 1996 and 97.
By taking a collection of well-chosen covers and sympathetically written new material and working with an array of fine guest artists (such as George Benson, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Roy Ayers, Hilton Ruiz and Vincent Montana Jr), Vega and Gonzalez fashioned an album – designed as a box of fine Cuban cigars – that celebrated their Puerto Rican roots. But at the same time, it was a symphony to the New York street.
The album was how many people first encountered Rotary Connection's I Am the Black Gold of the Sun. Sung by Jocelyn Brown, it reclaimed her from the handbag house she’d be voicing for years and proved that she was one of the most powerful soul vocalists working. A respectful cover of Bob James’ Nautilus (bracketed as MAWtilus – showing the joyous respectful mischief that coursed through the work) demonstrated how faithful they could be to an original, yet giving the 1974 jazz workout a thoroughly 90s feel.
Taking the Salsoul Orchestra’s Runaway – first sung by Loleatta Holloway, but here by India – again reflected the past projected into the future. A full hands-in the-air anthem, it brought a stately majesty to the original. The self-penned material on Nuyorican Soul also thrilled – in fact, It’s Alright, I Feel It! is easily the equal to some of the classics. The album also helped reactivate the careers of Roy Ayers and George Benson. Ayers’ extemporising on Roy’s Scat against his vibraphone and the beautiful Sweet Tears perfectly showcased his abilities. The same can be said for George Benson’s album closer, You Can Do It (Baby): it plays to Vega and Gonzalez’s strengths underneath Benson’s fluid guitar and vocals.
A 2006 reissue of the album added a second disc of remixes. It also contained their initial work under the Nuyorican Soul name, The Nervous Track, which, in 1993, alerted people to the power of this experiment. There was often talk of a follow-up to this album, but at the time of writing it remains on its own, and a true one-off – everything working well in perfect soulful harmony.